Seattle Now & Then: Mount Baker tunnel, 1940

(click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN: This nighttime view of the eastbound Mount Baker tunnel shows that the original twin tubes had two lanes apiece. The photo was taken at least a few weeks after the tunnel’s July 2, 1940, opening because the 3-foot wide interior sidewalks, with high curbs and pipe guardrail, were not installed until later that month. (University of Washington Special Collections)
NOW: Repeating the original path of our “Then,” this daytime view shows only two of the Mount Baker tunnel’s four present-day eastbound lanes for auto traffic. The other two, not pictured, emerge from the formerly westbound tunnel immediately to the north. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on Oct. 1, 2020
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Oct. 4, 2020)

In 1940, tunnel vision created a connection to the Eastside
By Clay Eals

As spooky as it is ethereal, our “Then” photo suggests Seattle barreling through a spacey cylinder to meet the future. The scene typifies our city’s bent for transforming its topography to satisfy urban dreams.

Eighty years ago, on July 2, 1940, an audacious dream — twin tunnels drilled through Mount Baker Ridge to connect Seattle to Mercer Island and the greater Eastside via an innovative bridge with floating concrete pontoons that crossed Lake Washington — became a reality that countless motorists take for granted today.

From the outset, the inextricably linked tunnels and bridge personified popularity, drawing 11,611 vehicles in the first 10-1/2 hours alone. To sustain this full-to-bursting stretch of what became an interstate artery, a companion tunnel and span were added a half-century later while, astonishingly, the original bridge sank and was quickly rebuilt.

Time was, Seattleites traveled east only by ferrying across or circumnavigating the elongated next-door lake. Some, including James Wood, Seattle Times associate editor, wanted to keep it that way.

“Just about the wildest dream ever to afflict an engineering mind is the proposed 8,000-foot concrete fence,” he wrote on Aug. 13, 1937. He called the tunnel-bridge project “a gross and wholly unnecessary obstruction.”

Prevailing, however, were campaigners for commerce. “The future prosperity of Seattle depends upon removing the barrier of the lake in order to gain easier access to the hinterland,” wrote Medina mogul Miller Freeman in the Jan. 9, 1938, Times. “It will providentially afford Seattle room for expansion in the only direction it can grow successfully.”

Thus the bridge and tunnels joined Seattle’s indelible identity. We of a certain age recall holding our breath through all 1,465 feet when parents drove us through one of the tunnels. Sometimes our elders humored us, generating a riotous echo by honking the car horn. But all was not childish fun.

As the neon indicates in our “Then,” when crossing the bridge to Mercer Island, drivers faced a variable toll of 25 to 45 cents, which ended in 1949. The curved arrow pointed to an abrupt “Lake Shore” entrance/exit opportunity tucked between the tunnels and bridge both east- and westbound at 35th Avenue South. A treacherous invitation to high-speed fender-benders and worse, it was curtailed in 1989.

Other tunnel-bridge idiosyncrasies, inconceivable today, triggered repeated fatalities. An awkward mid-bridge bulge to allow boat crossings was mercifully removed in 1981. Unprotected reversible lanes, instituted in 1960 to ease commuting, finally were eliminated in 1984.

Momentarily inattentive to the latter, as a fledgling 16-year-old driver in 1967 I barely avoided a head-on crash one afternoon.

The prospect still spooks me.

WEB EXTRAS

To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!

Below are seven present-day photos and, in chronological order, 62 historical clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and other online newspaper sources that were helpful in the preparation of this column.

Traffic heads eastbound out of the two original Mount Baker tunnels on Aug. 28, 2020. Westbound traffic uses newer tunnels out of view at far right. (Clay Eals)
A car emerges from the southernmost original Mount Baker tunnel, Aug. 28, 2020. The original “Portal of the North Pacific” concrete artwork is barely discernible at upper middle. (Clay Eals)
Traffic crosses the Mercer Island Floating Bridge in this eastbound view from atop the Mount Baker tunnels, Aug. 28, 2020. (Clay Eals)
Now a mere side street, 35th Avenue South dead-ends on the south side of the original Mount Baker tunnels, on Aug. 28, 2020. Here is where, for decades, eastbound drivers could enter the highway bridge or exit immediately after driving through the tunnel. Such access to the tunnel and bridge today is blocked and restricted to emergency vehicles. (Clay Eals)
A plaque dedicating the bridge to designer Homer Hadley, Aug. 28, 2020. (Clay Eals)
A plaque designating the bridge and tunnel a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, Aug. 28, 2020. (Clay Eals)
With bridge traffic roaring in the distance, this plaque dedicates the bridge to state highway director Lacey V. Murrow, Aug. 28, 2020. (Clay Eals)
Aug. 13, 1937, Seattle Times, page 6.
Jan. 9, 1938, Seattle Times, page 8.
May 15, 1938, Seattle Times, page 1.
May 15, 1938, Seattle Times, page 4.
June 26, 1938, Seattle Times, page 11.
April 1, 1939, Seattle Times, page 27.
Aug. 13, 1939, Seattle Times, page 42.
Sept. 3, 1939, Seattle Times, page 35.
Oct. 13, 1939, Seattle Times, page 16.
Oct. 21, 1939, Seattle Times, page 1.
Oct. 21, 1939, Seattle Times, page 2.
Jan. 26, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 17.
Feb. 5, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 11.
Feb. 26, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 9.
April 12, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 6.
April 13, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 3.
April 13, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, pages 1 and 3.
May 19, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 27.
May 31, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 17.
June 8, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 9.
June 14, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 1.
June 14, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 3.
June 14, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 5.
June 30, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 1.
June 30, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 16.
June 30, 1940, Seattle Times, page 17.
June 30, 1940, Seattle Times, page 19.
July 3, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 1.
July 3, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 6.
July 3, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 6.
July 3, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 7.
July 4, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 6.
July 10, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 10.
July 21, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 66.
Sept. 2, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 3.
Sept. 19, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 9.
Oct. 11, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 31.
Oct. 13, 1940, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 58.
Dec. 17, 1947, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 28.
July 19, 1949, Southeast Missourian.
Aug. 24, 1954, Seattle Times, page 4.
Jan. 7, 1955, Seattle Times, page 8.
May 31, 1955, Seattle Times, page 8.
Feb. 3, 1957, Seattle Times, page 2.
May 31, 1957, Seattle Times, page 21.
Dec. 30, 1959, Seattle Times, page 17.
March 16, 1960, Seattle Times, page 13.
Feb. 22, 1961, Mercer Island Reporter.
March 25, 1963, Seattle Times, page 5.
Dec. 17, 1963, Seattle Times, page 10.
Dec. 25, 1963, Seattle Times, page 67.
Dec. 26, 1963, Seattle Times, page 10.
Jan. 3, 1964, Seattle Times, page 10.
Sept. 23, 1970, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 3.
Jan. 17, 1974, Seattle Times, page 4.
May 20, 1974, Seattle Times, page 11.
Feb. 27, 1979, Seattle Times, page 12.
Jan. 30, 1980, Seattle Times, page 10.
Sept. 4, 1981, Seattle Times, page 98.
Sept. 7, 1981, Seattle Times, page 1.
April 13, 1984, Seattle Times, page 10.
Aug. 16, 1984, Seattle Times, page 56.

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